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Should You Use An Online Simulation For Your Physics IA?

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IB Physics IA Simulation

IB Physics IA Simulations: a suitability checklist, four free online simulations and some topic ideas for each


If you are considering using a simulation for your Physics IA, it is vital that your simulation is suitable and will give you measurable data to produce an excellent physics IA.

This blog post will give you:

  1. 10 questions to ask yourself if you are considering using a simulation for your Physics IA
  2. A list of free online simulations
  3. A few ideas of research questions / topics to work with using simulations


This free guide lists all IB Physics simulations (and much more!)



10 Questions To Ask Yourself If You Are Completing Your IB Physics IA Using a Simulation


Part of completing your physics IA will be to find a simulation that is as true to an experiment as possible. It is not expected that a simulation will be perfect (it won't) but this checklist will help you decide the suitability of your simulation. 

  1. Do the variables reflect those that would be encountered in a real-life situation?
  2. Do the variables generate data that conforms to standard, recognisable units?
  3. Are visualisations misleading in any way?
  4. Is the simulation freely available to a moderator or examiner?
  5. Does the simulation allow for a suitable range of values for each of the variables in the investigation?
  6. Are there enough variables with enough detail to draw meaningful conclusions?
  7. Does the simulation or database provide enough data points?
  8. Does the simulation or database allow for multiple runs?
  9. Is there variation in the results with each repeat run?
  10. Can the data be processed independently by students?

IMPORTANT NOTE: if the simulation you choose to use does not answer "YES" to all these questions above - that's ok! Your method or evaluation in the IA report should show that consideration is given to the above points and that creative solutions to make good any shortcomings in the simulation are considered. In fact, it could be considered that a less-than-perfect simulation is more useful than a perfect one as it allows you to find creative and personal solutions. 


This free guide helps you write your IB Physics IA (and much more!)



List of Free Online Simulations


Simulation 1:  oPhysics Simulations


I have shown an example of a Buoyancy simulation here, but oPhysics offers simulations in all major areas of IB Physics:

  • Kinematics
  • Forces
  • Conservation
  • Waves
  • Light
  • E&M
  • Rotation
  • Fluids, etc

Most of the simulations have real-life variables and allow for a suitable range of values to be collected. You'd have to check if the simulation you choose to use can give multiple runs (e.g. can you run the experiment three times and get slightly different results each time to allow for realistic uncertainties?)

Possible Research Questions Using oPhysics:


  • How does the density of an object fully immersed in water affect the time take to reach equilibrium, once released?
  • How does the mass of a bullet in a ballistic pendulum affect the maximum height reached by the pendulum, once the bullet has embedded?
  • How does the magnetic field strength of the bar magnets in a DC Motor affect the rotational velocity of the motor?

There are so many opportunities here. Just remember to use the 10 question checklist above to make sure your simulation is suitable.


Simulation 2: PhET 


PhET simulations are the prettiest of simulations but not always suitable for completing your physics IA.... 

There are a LOT of simulations to choose from and you'd have to exercise your judgement (using the 10 question checklist above) to assess if the PhET simulation was good to use.

My main concern with some of the PhET simulations is that there is not a suitable range of values for each of the variables in the investigation AND it doesn't really allow for repeatable measurements. However, that's not the case with them all. They have improved significantly over the years and there is certainly scope to produce a high quality physics IA using PhEt simulations.


Possible Research Questions Using PhET:


  • How does the refractive index of a material affect the intensity of light reflected from the boundary?
  • How does the diameter of a canonball affect the time taken to reach the ground, assuming a constant drag coefficient?
  • How does the temperature of an ideal gas affect the average rate of wall collisions within a container?

There are so many opportunities here. Just remember to use the 10 question checklist above to make sure your simulation is suitable.


Simulation 3: Algodoo


This is a free app for iPad, mac or Windows. You can use Algodoo to create simulation scenes using simple drawing tools like boxes, circles, polygons, gears, brushes, planes, ropes and chains. You can also add more physics in your simulation like fluids, springs, hinges, motors, thrusters, light rays, tracers, optics and lenses. Algodoo also allows you to explore and play around with different parameters like gravity, friction, restitution, refraction, attraction, etc. For deeper analysis you can also show graphs or visualise forces, velocities and momentum. You can also enhance your visualisation by showing X/Y components and angles.

The opportunities are endless and here is a basic tutorial on how to start:


Possible Research Questions Using Algodoo:


  • How does the diameter of a ball in freefall affect the coefficient of restitution after one bounce on a hard surface?
  • How does the angle of a ramp affect the time taken for a block to reach the bottom of the ramp?
  • Does a pendulum obey the rules of SHM at large angles of release?

I'll admit that Algodoo is not my favourite simulation.... I think it's quite fiddly and takes a while to set up the situation you are looking to investigate. However, I'm quite impatient and you might really like designing your own experiment from scratch in this way!

Just remember to use the 10 question checklist above to make sure your simulation is suitable!


Simulation 4: Falstad


These simulations look dated but they work well. I'm a fan of using Falstad and they have been around for a long time.


Possible Research Questions Using Falstad:


  • How does the slit width of a single slit affect the maximum angle of visible diffraction for a monochromatic source?
  • How does the distance between two charged parallel plates affect the area of uniform electric field lines (taking into account distortion due to the edge effect)?
  • How does the rate of rotation of Foucault's pendulum depend on the latitude position of the pendulum? 

There are so many opportunities here. Just remember to use the 10 question checklist above to make sure your simulation is suitable.


This free guide gives you 100+ ideas for your IB Physics IA (and much more!)



If you need to do your physics IA using a simulation - that's absolutely fine! You should use the 10 Question Checklist above to assess the suitability of the simulation. If it's not perfect - make sure you mention the limitations of the simulation in your internal assessment.

I have listed four of the most accessible online free simulations for your IB Physics IA, but you may know of others. Send me an email on [email protected] if you can recommend to me!

Hope this helps!

There's so much more help for your IB Physics IA in this free guide

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